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Using the Tube as an autistic person

Blog by Claire Lindsay. This blog and its content reflect the views of the author only.

I plan all my journeys very carefully. Because of my autism, any changes, no matter how small, causes anxiety and stress. The world is a very unpredictable and confusing place and so I prefer to have a fixed daily routine so that I know what is going to happen. This routine extends to always wanting to travel the same way to and from places. When there are diversions or journey restrictions or cancellations, it doesn’t just irritate me; it can feel like the end of the world. The London Bridge closure has caused me massive amounts of stress.

People with Autism may experience some form of sensory sensitivity which affects one of the five senses – sight, sound, smell, touch, taste. I have hypersensitivity to things such as noises (I am unable to cut out background noise), breezes, lights, movements and odours. I also have balance and vestibular difficulties, so I am unable to stand on moving things such as escalators and lifts without being supported, because of dizziness and disorientation. I am too scared to use night buses because of how fast they go. They make me feel very ill and anxious, I can’t use escalators, lifts, tunnels, stairs especially spiral staircases on my own.

I can’t just turn up and use any station, it may take up to twenty visits to a station before I can use it. Starting from just going to see the outside of the station to then walking inside, then another visit to go onto the platform. Even after all that, I might still not be able to continue because they might have turned an escalator off or there are too many people on that day. I will end up terminating the journey and going home. Many stations that are accessible to wheelchair users are inaccessible to me because of my Autism.

Inaccessible help points

The Help Points are a brilliant idea but many of them are buried deep within the depths of a station. At North Greenwich station, there is no Help Point at the entrance to the station, so I would need to use a lift or a steep escalator to get there, both of which I need help to do. At Pimlico, you need to go down a flight of stairs to get to the Help Point, which kind of defeats the idea!

Help point

Train stations are very difficult to navigate. Too much information confuses and overwhelms you. Too little information causes panic and anxiety. Victoria station has lots of information, with different routes printed on the floor in different colours to tell you where to go, as well as signs everywhere overhead. Yet until recently platform eight didn’t exist, it wasn’t signposted anywhere.

routes printed on the floor in different colours to tell visitors where to go

Bank is also a problem station, one of the most complex stations but with little or no information. Did you know that it is three lift journeys from the platform to the street there? After deciphering and remembering the sign outside the lift, I eventually made it to the outside world. It would be great to know how far I would have to walk to the exit, platform or interchange for every station.

Some signs for the stairs have the number of stairs indicated in brackets which is very useful and helps passengers make decisions. Symbols are easier for many people to read and understand: for example, a symbol of a footprint with a bus could point the way to the bus station.

Everyone benefits when things are easier to use. The inclusive design initiatives are very good, especially with an ageing and more culturally diverse population. Service providers need to include accessibility features (such as lifts, ramps, staff etc.) as a fundamental part of the network, instead of an addition to it. If a station lift is operative but there are no staff to accompany a wheelchair user, then that station is closed to the wheelchair user.

On-train information

On-train information accuracy and operation is patchy, it may only be one carriage or stop that is affected, but if that’s the one required it may as well be the whole system. Live announcements are either too loud, too quiet or undecipherable. The pre-recorded ones are better - if they are turned on or working! But announcements that are too loud can cause disorientation, causing me to freeze on the spot which means more anger, tutting and pushing from other passengers.

Travel assistance

Ticket machines are particularly difficult to read or work out how to operate and when you are in a genuine rush and have people behind you tutting it can cause extreme social anxiety.

I find the travel assistance card very useful and it should be promoted more. It helps me because I don’t have to talk to people (which I can’t always do) to be able to access help. I use it at the ticket barriers so that I can get help down to the platform. I often get told to wait until there is someone available – most of the time this is because of staff shortages. The staff say this is because of sickness or staff breaks, but what would happen if when someone was escorting me an emergency occurred? All the staff that I have met have been very polite and helpful: in fact, I couldn’t use the underground without them. Many have said that they would welcome extra training in assisting people with invisible impairments.

Finding staff when you are in the station is very difficult. Once you are past the ticket barriers, staff are very hard to find once you are on or between the platforms, and on a number of occasions I have had to rely on other passengers helping me.

One of the best things about having autism is that I notice the small things. I love the art and the design involved with transport and trains, especially the Underground, and a few changes could improve things for everyone.

Claire Lindsay is co-founder of Thoughtistic, an organisation working to improve access for people with autism